Cash-strapped city officials have been able to come up with only about half of the funding for the program. And, codes officials say, some residents are undermining the program by continuing to feed stray cats and, in some cases, disabling traps.
"No one saw this coming. It just came out of nowhere," said Kirby Hudson, Coatesville's city manager. "It's catastrophic." Yes, his pun was intentional.
Feral cats aren't exactly cute and cuddly, Hudson observes. They're used to living in the wild and generally don't take well to adoption. In Coatesville, residents have reported seeing cats sitting on cars and hissing at anyone who comes near. And male cats are aggressive about marking their territory with urine - "a horrific smell," Hudson said.
One resident, he said, called the city to complain after a male cat entered his car through an open window and proceeded to cover the interior in urine.
The city has paired with Forgotten Cats, a Delaware-based organization that runs trap, neuter, and release programs. With residents' permission, the organization places traps - baited with cat food and tuna fish - on properties and asks residents to stop feeding the cats for at least 24 hours.
Once a cat is trapped, residents will cover the trap and wait for Laura Szymanski, the Forgotten Cats trapper working in Coatesville, to retrieve the trap.
The cat will be neutered and vaccinated for rabies and then returned to the location where it was caught. Eventually, city officials hope, Coatesville's feral cats will no longer be able to reproduce, and populations will dwindle to a more manageable size.
Szymanski has trapped 95 cats so far, but she's had trouble finding volunteers to maintain traps, she said. Sometimes, she has resorted to trying to net cats on her own.
"I work six days a week, 10-hour days," she said. "People really want our help, and there's people that need our help that have nowhere else to turn."
Coatesville's problem isn't uncommon. Several area municipalities have feral-cat issues, and the Humane Society of the United States estimates that there are as many as 50 million wild cats nationwide. The number of towns with feral-cat ordinances jumped from 23 in 2003 to 240 this year, according to a recent study.
New Jersey is the national leader with 58 such ordinances. Philadelphia; Abington and Upper Moreland, Montgomery County; and Lansdowne, Delaware County, have them. Affluent Radnor Township, on the Main Line, is considering one.
Coatesville officials realized the extent of their situation in the spring, Hudson said, when building inspector Chris Small began fielding dozens of calls about wild cats.
In the months since, Small has learned where the cats congregate and who's feeding them. He's spotted cats hiding in the rafters of garages and watched 10 or more of them scatter at his approach in abandoned lots.
"They sit on porches, they sit on cars, they're in alleyways, they're in garages - they're everywhere," he said.
The city normally fines homeowners who feed stray cats, but now Small is trying to work with them. If those residents agree to set traps on their properties, the city will be able to nab cats that have grown accustomed to eating there.
"It's really a problem - there are still a ton more out there," Small said.
Coatesville is hoping to receive grants to pay for the trapping program - Forgotten Cats, Hudson said, was charging about $13,000, but the city could come up with only $6,000. Cities looking to reduce feral cat populations can apply for grants through PetSmart, the pet-supply retailer, which offers funding for trap, neuter, and release programs.
To reduce the cat populations, "I think it'll take a while," Szymanski said. "There are still a lot of cats to be done, and we don't have the time or the funding to get them - so we're going to spend three to four weeks here and do what we can."
In the meantime, city officials are asking for the public's help.
"There's a negative attitude toward the codes department - they'll avoid us," Small said. "But we need these people to help us. Without their help, it's going to be hard."
Contact Aubrey Whelan at 610-313-8112, at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @aubreyjwhelan.